Like a group of eager students, more than 1,200 eastern Baltimore County residents went to Dundalk High School last night seeking to become wise in the ways of tax protest.
And like good students, the people who jammed into the school auditorium were brimming with curiosity, asking more questions than their instructors had time to answer.
Newly-elected Councilman Donald Mason, D-7th, who urged everyone present to appeal their new property tax assessments, was forced to limit the number of questions from the audience. But he promised to conduct a series of workshops to help people understand their assessments and the appeals process.
The first workshop is scheduled for Jan. 12 at Dundalk Community College.
Mason, a Dundalk resident, brushed aside criticism that his urging homeowners to appeal their tri-annual assessments would clog up the system. He said that the failure of homeowners to appeal in years past was "seen as satisfaction" by government officials.
Later, two other new members of the County Council, Douglas Riley, R-4th, of Towson, and William Howard, R-6th, of Parkville, also urged the standing-room-only crowd to appeal their assessments.
"Many of you probably have not appealed your assessment before," said the 28-year-old Howard. "I urge you to appeal. . . . Jam the system."
Mason and Harold Lloyd, a leader of Property Taxpayers United, said increases on assessments are not justified in a real estate market that is down. And, they said, the appeals are necessary to send a message to government to cut wasteful spending.
Lloyd, who lives in Freeland in the north of the county, led the crowd, many of whom had their assessment notices with them, line by line through the assessment notice and the work sheet that state assessors use to value property.
Lloyd urged those appealing their assessments to get the work sheets and to scrutinize them closely for errors.
"Don't let the bureaucracy fool you," Lloyd said. "This is an 'estimated' value. This is someone else's idea of what your property is worth. It may or may not be right, and you have a right to be part of the process, to let your voice be heard."
As an example, Lloyd pointed out that a homeowner's assessment rose 34 percent over three years and much of the increase centered on the value of the land.
But Lloyd said assessors have overvalued the worth of land. He told the audience to get a list of recent real estate sales in their neighborhoods in an effort to contest the higher assessments.
Robert L. Dowling, supervisor of the Towson office of the State Department of Assessments and Taxation, said property owners have until Jan. 24 to file appeals. So far, out of 93,000 assessment notices sent out, 2,000 appeals have been filed, he said.
Dowling and several members of his staff manned a booth in the school lobby, passing out brochures and answering questions.
Lloyd also explained how state and local property tax caps will work.
On a home that's assessment increased 34 percent, from $101,000 to $136,000, the taxpayer would save $435 over three years because of the local 4 percent assessment cap and $95 over three years because of the state's 10 percent assessment cap.
Currently, the property tax rate in Baltimore County is $2.895 per $100 of assessed valuation. An additional state property tax of 21 cents per $100 of assessed valuation is also levied.
Mason praised the caps, which were enacted last year by the County Council and General Assembly respectively, but said more needs to be done to send a message "that citizens want something done about local government spending."
Mason and Riley are members of the county council's Spending and Affordability Committee.
Democratic Del. Louis L. DePazzo, who represents Dundalk in the legislature, drew the most rousing applause from the crowd. He said he supported Mason and County Executive Roger B. Hayden during the election, but now he would be watching them closely for results.
"We like the way you talk," DePazzo told the elected officials. "But we're not here for love and affection. We're here for business. You guys cut that tax rate!"
DePazzo said he would continue to goad elected officials to stop wasting taxpayers' money. "I pledge that I will continue at the cost of being called Crazy Lou. But I don't mind that. Because when you speak out and you buck the system, they call you crazy."